Best Toys for Three

You think you’ll remember everything, but you won’t. (Or you’re wiser to begin with, and know you won’t remember everything, in fact cannot remember what day it is right now, or where you put your keys, or how many times you’ve microwaved that same cup of tea today.)

I am already beginning to forget exactly what two was like, or two and a half. What did she wear, what did she say, when did she start jumping with two feet or using a three-point grip, what books were we reading, what did she play with?

Well, I’ve done a decent job keeping track of what we read when, between “what we’ve read so far” posts on this blog and LibraryThing, and I have approximately thirteen zillion pictures so I know when she wore the yellow fish shirt or the green turtle pants, and I keep a little book where I write down select quotes (“Did you know that feet can be afraid?” For the record, hers never are).

Toys, though, I have a feeling I’m not going to remember which toys she liked best at what age. And because it’s nice to remember, and also because I will probably need to give gifts to other three-year-olds years from now, I thought it’d be useful to have a record. No one has paid me to endorse any of the below products.

We LOVE this puzzle, which can be “solved” any number of ways.

Art: Magna-doodle (great for car trips), Play-doh, watercolors, water-based paint, crayons (especially metallic or “gel,” which show up well on construction paper, butcher paper, cardboard, etc.)

Building: Megablox, Duplo, Marbleworks, regular wooden blocks of various shapes, Magnatiles (we play with these at the library), Brio trains, PipeWorks (cannot get this anymore, my mom saved ours from the ’80s, thank you Mom!)

Board Games: Snail’s Pace Race (also saved from the ’80s but I think they still make it), Friends & Neighbors, Hoot Owl Hoot, matching/memory, Go Fish. (Hoot Owl Hoot and Friends & Neighbors are from Peaceable Kingdom, which makes cooperative rather than competitive games), Candyland

Literacy: Acorn Soup (it has “recipes”), Zingo, board books with nursery rhymes

Pretend/Dress-Up: Food/cooking things (play food, sturdy teacups, teapot, apron, Bake-and-Decorate Cupcake Set, little plates, pots and pans, etc.); Doctor or Pet Vet sets (we play with these at the library); firefighter costume; various twirly skirts/tutus

Puzzles/STEM: 24-piece Imaginarium Discovery wooden blocks color puzzle (this is the BEST), any wooden puzzle with 20-30 pieces if it’s in a wooden frame, oversize floor puzzles (e.g. Its-Bitsy Spider, fire truck, Madeline), the gear toy from Plan Toys, stacking/nesting cups (still!)

img_20181113_172202It really is true that kids have their own unique interests and develop their skills accordingly. Ours loves art, but is much more interested in color than in any kind of representative drawing; we’re still nowhere near coloring books or even stick figures, but painting is fun. She’s not particularly interested in cars or trucks or Things That Go (though she’ll read books about them). She likes kitchen things (real and pretend) and building things and has been into puzzles from a pretty early age; I’m guessing that in a few years she’ll be able to bake a simple cake on her own, and a few years after that she’ll be helping her dad with those thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles. And she loves the chess set at the library…




Winter kitchen

Our kitchen is the coldest room in the house…until we turn on the oven. And I got a new cast iron loaf pan for Hanukkah, so of course I had to try it out once or thrice.

Breakfast and Bread

English Muffin Toasting Bread (King Arthur Flour) in the new cast iron loaf pan!

Cinnamon Raisin Bread (America’s Test Kitchen), also in new cast iron loaf pan

Irish soda bread (ATK)

Almond-flour pancakes (King Arthur Flour)

Cream scones (ATK)

Tea is always at four


Butternut squash and caramelized onion galette with spinach (Smitten Kitchen)

Veggie lasagna (lasagna noodles, sauce from a jar, ricotta/soft tofu mixture, spinach)

Pizza (Smitten Kitchen’s rushed dough, sauce from a jar, shredded mozzarella)

Tea sandwiches (smoked salmon/cream cheese/cucumber, egg salad/Dutch gouda)

Sole coated with crushed pecans and whole wheat flour, sautéed in butter, with crispy pan-fried kale and garlic bread


Date balls

Date balls (dates, almonds, cocoa, coconut oil, pinch of salt, sesame seeds)

Homemade applesauce

Confetti cookies a.k.a. sprinkle cookies (Smitten Kitchen)

Tahini cookies (Jerusalem by Ottolenghi)

Chocolate chip cookies (Tollhouse and Good to the Grain)

Black and White cookies (Martha Stewart’s Cookies)

Rice pudding (My Kitchen Year)

Sprinkle cookies


My Kitchen Year, Ruth Reichl

Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin (Regarding tea parties: “At four in the afternoon, everyone feels a little peckish but only the British have institutionalized this feeling.”)

In the middle with middle grade

Sometimes I think high school is one long hazing activity.
If you’re tough enough to survive this, they’ll let you become an adult.
I hope it’s worth it.
Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson

This year, I read about forty middle grade books. “Middle grade” wasn’t a category I was really aware of growing up, or even really until I became a librarian; generally speaking, it’s the books that come after the early readers (like Frog and Toad) and before young adult, books that kids are likely to read independently (though reading aloud is wonderful for as long as kid and grown-up are enjoying it).

I’ve focused a lot on this category this year for two reasons: (1) Some of my library hours are now in the children’s department, and I wanted to read more of these books to improve my recommendations to patrons, and (2) I have a blessedly short commute and it takes me too long to get through an adult-length or even YA audiobook, so middle grade books (usually 6-8 hours) are perfect.

Also, middle grade books are amazing. The characters tackle their problems with brains and hearts and guts. The problems are real, and so is the growth. The characters make good choices and bad choices, they fail and correct and apologize, they get in fights and make up and try to understand other people and the world around them.

Middle grade fantasy is good, but when I look at this year’s books, middle grade realistic fiction stands out even more. I’ve discovered and continued to seek out the authors Cynthia Lord, Sharon M. Draper, Erin Estrada Kelly, Dana Alison Levy, Raina Telgemeier, Sarah Weeks, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Corey Ann Haydu, Alex Gino, Meg Medina, Shannon Hale, Rebecca Stead, and Thanhha Lai, for the way their characters wrestle with the challenges they face growing up: relationships with friends, enemies, rivals, parents, teachers, pets, neighbors, strangers. Obstacles from within and without. Difference is something that these characters all confront and begin to reconcile: whether friends’ emerging personalities cause them to grow apart, or whether they are teased or bullied or made to feel less than for some aspect of their identity – race, culture, nationality, academic ability, sexuality, economic status.

I’ve always loved YA, but this year I gained a real appreciation for middle grade books. So it’s fitting that I discovered a box in my basement containing these:

Three piles of books

These were my copies of books I read and re-read in grade school, middle school, and early high school: Susan Cooper’s Boggart, and Elizabeth Winthrop’s The Castle in the Attic. Barbara Robinson’s The Best School Year Ever. Caroline B. Cooney’s Face on the Milk Carton trilogy, and Madeleine L’Engle’s books about the Murray family, including (of course) A Wrinkle in Time. Fairy tale retelling Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, which I didn’t even realize was Cinderella until later. One-offs like What Are They Saying About Me? and Breaking Boxes. Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. The Giver, possibly my first dystopia. Philip Pullman’s Shadow in the North, which I read even before discovering His Dark Materials. Historical fiction Number the Stars, and contemporary heroin novel Smack (which effectively warned more than it glamorized; it is safer to encounter things in books than in real life).

These books, and dozens and dozens more, are part of the reason why, when Emma Watson as Belle in the 2017 remake of Beauty and the Beast asks Pere Robert – apparently the only person in the whole town who has any books she can borrow – “Have you got any new places to go?” I know exactly what she means. (And watching the first half hour of Bo Burnham’s movie Eighth Grade reminded me why I needed new places to go.)

In many ways, 2018 has been the kind of year that journalists, historians, and writers of dystopian books have been warning us about (see: The Weekly List), but we have some damn good books.

What we’ve read so far: 3 years, 2 months

We have been reading up a storm over the past few months!

We had a dragon phase:

  • Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri
  • Droofus the Dragon by Bill Peet
  • The Knight and the Dragon by Tomie de Paola
  • Mamasaurus by Stephan Lomp
  • Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light

We have zeroed in on several favorite authors and illustrators:

  • Zachariah Ohora (No Fits, Nilson is one of the best)
  • Kevin Henkes (Sheila Rae the Brave has been a bedtime staple)
  • Arthur Howard (My Dream Dog)
  • Dev Petty (I Don’t Want to Go to Sleep)
  • Molly Idle (Pearl)
  • Jane O’Connor (Fancy Nancy series)

And we enjoyed some Hanukkah books:

  • How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague
  • All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins and Paul O. Zelinsky
  • Hanukkah Hamster by Michelle Markel and Andre Ceolin

Wordless picture books:

  • Found by Jeff Newman
  • A Boy and A House by Maja Kastelic


  • Dim Sum for Everyone by Grace Lin
  • Want to Play Trucks? by Ann Stott and Bob Graham
  • Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed and Stasia Burrington
  • Mixed by Arree Chung

We also liked:

  • Look by Fiona Woodcock*
  • Hank’s Big Day by Evan Kuhlman and Chuck Groenink
  • Sloth at the Zoom by Helaine Becker and Orbie
  • I Am Actually A Penguin by Sean Taylor and Kasia Matyjaszek
  • Will Ladybug Hug? by Hilary Leung
  • Just Add Glitter by Angela DiTerlizzi and Samantha Cotterill
  • The World Champion of Staying Awake by Sean Taylor and Jimmy Liao
  • The Sun Is Kind of A Big Deal by Nick Seluk
  • Do Not Lick This Book by Idan Ben-Barak, Julian Frost, and Linnea Rundgren

*Look has only one or two words per page, but each word features a double “o” (e.g. balloon, kangaroo), so I started pointing that out as we read, and having her make the “oo” sound, and then start sounding out the rest of the word. She’s had letter recognition in her skill set for a while now, and is just starting to make the letter sounds as well, which is so exciting! Of course, we hit a lot of snags, because English has more irregularities than rules (“The letter C sounds like a K sometimes and like an S other times…”).

What are your favorite picture books and early readers lately? Favorite audiobooks for little ones? How do you find your new favorites? Being in the library nearly every day helps, and there are plenty of year-end lists right around now; I like the Kirkus Best Picture Books of 2018. The annual NPR Book Concierge also features kids’ books as well as teen and adult fare – remember, if you want your kids to be readers, it’s important for them to see you reading too! (That’s what I tell myself when I’m reading one of my own books while she’s otherwise occupied.)

From the kitchen

The kiddo is pretty helpful in the kitchen now; she knows where all of the ingredients are and can get them out and put them away, is good at stirring (and getting better about not putting her hands in the dry ingredients like a sensory bin), and has the attention span to complete a whole recipe. Hurrah!

We’ve made a lot of cookies, and I think the chocolate ginger cookies from Martha Stewart’s Cookies have become some of my favorites. We make them extra gingery because the kiddo looooves ginger. I have a sweet tooth; she has a sweet tooth and also a spice tooth (is that a thing?). So in addition to the fresh grated ginger and the ground ginger, we add some chopped candied or crystallized ginger. We’ve made these once for ourselves and once to bring to a friend’s annual cookie party.

Thanksgiving sides: Cranberry sauce from scratch, because I had some cranberries in the freezer: I guessed at the recipe, and double-checked with America’s Test Kitchen once I’d already started, but it turns out my guess was just about right: cranberries, water and/or apple cider, lemon juice and zest, some sugar (white or brown, I forget which I used). It was very tart!  I also made Anthony Bourdain’s recipe for candied sweet potatoes (step one: “Put those goddamned marshmallows away”) and mashed potatoes (butter, milk or cream, salt). Also, whipped up a batch of cream scones with cranberries for some friends who came over the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

I made three gluten-free recipes in November for friends who took care of our dog over Thanksgiving: Chocolate peanut butter fudge and one-bowl ginger cookies from Minimalist Baker, and almond-flour chocolate chip cookies from King Arthur Flour.

gingered applesauce cake on a cake plateThe library cookbook club skipped December, but a few friends and I had our own spinoff potluck, with partners and toddlers, and it was a noisy and delicious evening, with “pizza beans” and a squash galette from Smitten Kitchen, roasted veggies and fresh bread, and Ruth Reichl’s gingered applesauce cake with caramel glaze from My Kitchen Year. (I made the applesauce from scratch too, which is possibly the easiest thing to do and tastes SO much better than the jarred kind. The kiddo has her own knife now and helps chop the apples after I peel them.)

I’ve been making the King Arthur English Muffin Toasting Bread and it is still good but I am getting a tiny bit tired of it. However, I love the fact that it’s a single, short rise instead of an hours-long (or days-long) affair. If there are more single-rise breads out there, I would love to meet them…


First quilt

It is far from perfect, but it’s several years ahead of schedule! (For some reason, I didn’t think I’d start quilting till my 40s.) The “star” here is the star-patterned flannel, repurposed from an old bedsheet. I modeled my design on a quilt that was given to us by an aunt, a simple pattern of squares with knots tied where the blocks joined. That quilt featured a few fabrics, while I just used the star flannel and a plain blue in a chessboard pattern.

IMG_20181101_154458I consulted several library books (including How to Make A Quilt by Barbara Weiland Talbert), some blog posts, and a few online videos for help; I made lots of mistakes, but they were all instructive.

Starting out: Gathering supplies, making measurements, cutting squares, pressing squares. I had a lot of the supplies I needed from regular sewing and from bookmaking, but I added a few things to my kit, including a rotary cutter, a walking foot for the sewing machine, and an acrylic ruler. After cutting squares from the star fabric, I changed my mind about the size and cut them down a bit smaller (mistake #1).

Pinning and sewing the top of the quilt. Despite cutting carefully, my blocks weren’t exactly perfect squares (mistake #2); I pinned them anyway and pieced together the quilt top. Then I took a break for about a month while I worried about how to attach a walking foot. Turns out this is super easy, thanks to a few instructional videos online.


Making the quilt sandwich. I turned the quilt top right side down and pressed the seams to one side. Again, not perfect, but better. At this point, I should have trimmed the whole thing perfectly square (mistake #3). I cut the batting to size, then cut the backing fabric to size. I actually did this twice, cutting it closer the second time (mistake #4, as I then discovered a “cheat” binding on someone’s blog). The cheat binding involved folding the extra backing fabric over the top of the quilt, instead of cutting and joining long strips for the binding; there were instructions for that in my book but they were completely incomprehensible to me, and the cheat way made sense without sacrificing the look of the finished quilt. However, I pinned the binding before setting the quilt (mistake #5), and ultimately had to un-pin it, trim the quilt top and batting down on two sides, and re-pin it.

Setting the quilt. This part went fairly well; I used the “stitch in the ditch” technique of sewing along the x- and y-axes, which should have been invisible except that my squares weren’t perfectly square. It still mostly looked fine (though I don’t know how you’re supposed to tell/remember which side you pressed the seams to – maybe by marking each square on top?). I also went all the way around the edge for a little extra security.


Finishing the quilt. I folded the binding up, pinned it, and sewed all the way around, finishing the last couple inches by hand, as the bobbin ran out of thread just shy of the end. For a finishing touch, I threaded a needle with embroidery floss and made a knot wherever four blocks joined. This had been done on the quilt we received as a gift, and I think it added a necessary extra touch to an otherwise plain quilt.

Washing. It all comes out in the wash, as they say…in this case, two of the ties came untied (even though I triple-knotted every single one of them), but that was easy enough to re-do. And some of the blue fabric started unraveling – next time I am only working with quilting cottons! (Mistake #6, fabric choice. It didn’t help that the star-patterned flannel was also worn thin, but the whole point of making the quilt was to preserve that fabric somehow.)

I fixed it up as best I could, reinforcing some of the quilting on the machine and making a funny little triangle hat-type thing for one of the corners. And that’s it – it’s done in time for the holidays!







What we’ve read so far: Three years

THREE! Three years of reading. Reading board books, picture books, early readers, audiobooks, old favorites and new discoveries. I just peeked back at a couple “what we’ve read so far” posts from about a year ago (22.5 months | 2 years, 1 month) and plenty of those books are still in rotation.

sophiessquashWe are also keeping things fresh with books from the library (daily, weekly) and, lately, a few gifts; I gave her copies of Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, Alligator Cookies by James Young, Please Mr. Panda by Steve Antony, and Frog and Toad All Year by Arnold Lobel (the only Frog and Toad book she didn’t already have). We also received Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller from friends. Sophie was an immediate hit, and we found Sophie’s Squash Go to School at the library so basically we are in heaven.

Some of our other recent picture book favorites include:

  • The Class by Boni Ashburn: Know a kid starting school for the first time? Put this book in their hands. (Better yet, sit and read it together.) See also: School’s First Day of School and Oliver and His Alligator.
  • Hoodwinked by Arthur Howard: I looked up the author because we had his Serious Trouble on our shelf at home (thanks Nana!), and Hoodwinked is perfect for the Halloween season (or really anytime); it reminds me a lot of Miss Brooks Loves Books! (And I Don’t) by Barbara Bottner.
  • Grumpy Pants by Claire Messner is the perfect book to pull out when someone is grumpy, and a great illustration of how moods can change. See also: Pom Pom Panda Gets the Grumps and Hooray for Hat!
  • Solutions for Cold Feet and other little problems by Carey Sookocheff is simple and sweet and funny; it can also be used to open a discussion about problem-solving. I have not yet gotten tired of re-reading this one and we’ve had it for several weeks now.
  • Ellie by Mike Wu features a cute little elephant and her friends banding together to save their zoo. Ellie in Concert is the follow-up. See also: Bonkers! by Cath Jones.
  • Princess Bess Gets Dressed by Margery Cuyler: Kids this age like to play dress-up, but what they like even more than putting clothes on is taking them off…this book will resonate.
  • Interrupting Chicken and Interrupting Chicken and the Elephant of Surprise by David Ezra Stein: some of the humor in these is above a three-year-old’s pay grade, but she enjoys them anyway, and her adult readers definitely do.


Sewing project: envelope pillowcase covers (and dreaming of quilts)

I hemmed a pair of curtains (from IKEA via a yard sale) and there was enough fabric left over to cover three of the four throw pillows that came with our couch (the fourth pillow is in the reading nook in the other room), so now the unrelenting sea of nondescript brown is broken up a bit, and the pillows match the curtains, and the fabric was essentially free.

A friend sent me a link to zippered pillowcase covers on the blog Hey There Home, and it looked fairly simple, but even simpler is the envelope style of pillowcase cover that does not involve a zipper (or a zipper foot). I’m pretty sure this is the easiest sewing project I’ve ever done! I used this set of instructions (“How to Make an Envelope Pillow Cover“), with this set as a backup (“DIY: Simple Envelope Pillow Tutorial“).

Two of the three pillowcases. Not perfect and not terribly special, but easy, and better than they looked before! (And washable.)

I also attended the Rising Star Quilters Guild show in Lexington recently, and WOW. I’m just beginning learning to quilt and I can’t imagine spending eight years on one, or having the patience to make one even half as perfect (and enormous) as the ones I saw, but I’m certainly inspired.

I’m not sure how the artists would feel about me posting pictures of their quilts online (particularly as I can’t attribute properly – I didn’t write down all the names), but I just visited a friend who is also a quilter, and whose mother is an amazing quilter, and here are some pictures of a “turtle quilt” she made:

This is not a great picture but it is an incredible quilt.
Detail of two of the turtles, which you’ll notice have each been pieced together with different shapes and expressions. Incredible.

I love everything about this quilt. Turtles, for one, of course. The fall colors, from green to yellow to orange to brown. The asymmetry of it; it would never have occurred to me to make a quilt anything other than symmetrical, but now it’s an option! The design of simple horizontal stripes with those big blocks…I just love it.

October garden update: getting ready for winter

Nothing too much to report since the last gardening update, other than that I’ve pulled out the pumpkin vines and the tomatoes, and planted garlic in the raised bed. I’ve never grown garlic before – fingers crossed for a yummy harvest next year!

My little book Stuff Every Gardener Should Know gave me the idea to grow garlic. I borrowed two popsicle sticks from our art supply drawer to help me remember where I’d planted the cloves.
Two bulbs of garlic from the farmers’ market yielded six large cloves.

Back to bread

Now that the weather has cooled off enough that turning on the oven isn’t unthinkable, I’m back to my standby bread recipe, the quick, easy, one-rise English Muffin Toasting Bread from King Arthur Flour. (The recipe makes one loaf; the extra one here is for my mom, who picked us up from the airport after our trip!)

Also, a baker friend gave me some of her sourdough starter. I don’t adore sourdough all the time, but I like it very much toasted for certain sandwiches. I turned to King Arthur again for my first attempt, using their Rustic Sourdough Bread recipe. (Because I couldn’t use the starter right away – I got it right before we left on a three-day trip – I put it in the fridge, and took it out when we got back. KA has plenty of tips for caring for your starter!)

As usual, I was underwhelmed by the rise – recipes often say the dough should double in bulk and I never feel that mine does, but in this case, it came out just fine anyway, and in fact made quite a pretty loaf. Another few minutes in the oven and it would have been perfect, I think (I was rushing to leave the house and took it out as soon as the internal temp reached 190F). It didn’t taste strongly of sourdough, but it was fine bread nonetheless. We ate some, and sliced and froze the rest.


I’d like to get a bit more adventurous with baking bread this fall and winter – the potato bread from Beth Hensperger’s Bread Bible is fantastic, and I want to try making rye or pumpernickel – but the English Muffin Toasting bread is just so easy (one short rise!), it’s my go-to. Anyone have any breads they love that don’t need long rise times?